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No Karen, not everything needs to be on GitHub

Published on: January 21, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 min

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This blog might trigger some people. But somebody out there needs to hear it, so here it is. Why don't projects like the linux kernel and GNU/Emacs use GitHub for development? Isn't it more convenient that whatever they're using? Around 2018 I stopped using GitHub for software development for the same reasons those people are not ready to move to GitHub. Since then I've been using GitLab primarily. But ever since registration forms of various hackathons and conferences stopped asking for a link to a place where my projects are hosted and instead started asking for a GitHub username I started to mirror my repos from GitLab to GitHub. So I don't necessarily use GitHub for development but I still use it as a mirror for my repos in GitLab.

In this post I will try to explain why I moved away from GitHub and why the 'just move to GitHub' fad is kind of unreasonable.

Why I moved away from GitHub

GitHub is mostly proprietary.

It's a shame that most of the Open Source Code that claims to protect people's privacy and freedom, is hosted on proprietary platform. Especially when there are so many alternatives out there.

GitHub breaks compatibility with Git.

GitHub's pull request is not a native feature of Git the version control tool. PRs only works on GitHub, so any workflow around PRs will only work if you use GitHub. They are essentially extending git in their platform in a way that it breaks compatibility with git itself. In comparison GitLab's merge requests and branch based workflow is a better implementation. To quote Linus himself:

Git comes with a nice pull-request generation module, but GitHub instead decided to replace it with their own totally inferior version. As a result, I consider GitHub useless for these kinds of things. It's fine for hosting, but the pull requests and the online commit editing, are just pure garbage

Feel free to read his other comments regarding GitHub and watch him roast people in the typical Torvalds way here.

GitHub is centralized

GitHub does not let their users self host the platform. The safest place for your data is your own hands if anyone dearly holds on to your data for no apparent reason (especially when it's a free service) you shouldn't trust them. But the fact that GitHub is owned by Open Source's greatest ally and privacy champion Microsoft is somewhat a relief.

GitHub was so bad for free software, all along, that I could imagine Microsoft's making it less bad, or making it more bad. We should ff judge by what actually happens, not by prejudice.

Keep in mind that Apple is much worse than Microsoft. – Richard Mathew Stallman

I didn't want to be part of the network effect.

I didn't want to be part of the problem. GitHub's becoming more and more of monopoly. "Get on GitHub because everyone else is already there" is pretty much the slogan out there right now. People haven't yet realized how harmful monopolies are and by the time they do, it will be too late. I also didn't like the whole trend of filling the green boxes. Hackathon and conference organizers has also started selecting participants based on the number of contributions. I find this to be a bad trend that will prove to be harmful to the tech community in the long run.

What else is there?

Many drop in replacements.

GitLab Community edition is a popular choice among various free software projects. It's got everything GitHub has and more. Then there's Gitea which is more lightweight and clean. There's more and they're not that hard to find either so I'm not gonna spend a lot of time here.

Good Old Email

Now this might sound complicated but hear me out. Suppose Me and a couple of friends start a free software project and host it on a simple git server where you can browse the code or clone it. For communication I setup two mailing lists for issues and community contributions. You a user of our project could view the code through the git server, if you have a bug to report you could simply send a mail to the issues mailing list and all the discussions regarding that issue will happen under that thread. Rather if you have a bug-fix you could simply make your changes locally create a diff file using git, sign the patch and send it the community contributions mailing list and again all discussions related to that contribution will happen in that mail thread. If your patch satisfies the maintainers requirement they simply have to download your patch and merge it into the master branch. As simple as that.

So how is this better?

  1. I get to host the code and everything related to the project where I want.

  2. Nobody has to sign up anywhere.

  3. Unlike GitHub no dead fork or weird hacks to resolve merge conflicts at the end of the day.

  4. Definitely fewer clicks to make a contribution than GitHub or even GitLab for that matter.

  5. You can do everything from your text editor/IDE and mail client.

  6. No need to run proprietary JS.

  7. It's dead simple and will work universally where as workflows involving GitHub (Pull Requests) does not translate to other platforms.

    This is actually how the linux kernel is being developed. Git servers and mailing lists.

Conclusion

The major reason why people use GitHub seems to be because it is becoming more and more a kind of social media platform like Facebook where the likes, comments, shares etc. are replaced by stars, green boxes, forks etc. I don't think that is particularly healthy. For the reasons in the first sections of this page and since (as the second section suggests) there are many alternatives that does pretty much the exact same thing GitHub does, it isn't that compelling to choose GitHub over others if you don't care about the social media aspect of GitHub. People like Linus and the developers of Emacs definitely don't care about bragging about their green boxes or the number of stars their project has to their peers so it only makes sense that they don't see the value in GitHub. People need to understand this and in my opinion maybe adopt the same attitude as them.